In telling immigrant story, pictures don’t lie

by Douglas Britt (Houston Chronicle)

Exhibit depicts irony of Belgium’s warm welcome and laborers’ reality

Photographers don’t make laws, but they can offer glimpses into how laws play out. Charif Benhelima: Welcome to Belgium, a small exhibition at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art, weaves together autobiography and documentary photography to shed light on the lives of immigrants to a country that has sent mixed messages about their presence over the years.

Benhelima shot his photographs of immigrants of varying legal status during the 1990s, but he introduces the work with text — applied in vinyl letters directly to the floor — translated from a 1964 brochure that the Belgian Ministry of Employment and Labor distributed in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.

“WORKERS, Welcome to Belgium!,” the text begins. “We, the people of Belgium, are pleased that you are offering us your energies and brainpower. We hope this new way of life will bring you happiness. … Belgium is a country where labour is well paid, where you can live in great comfort, especially if you are living with your own family.”

The irony sinks in the moment your eyes rise from the floor to take in the Belgium of Benhelima’s grainy blackand-white photos shot in often-intimate settings in a classic documentary style. This Belgium looks like a country where labor is poorly paid, where immigrants can live in great squalor — even if they’re lucky enough to live with their own families.

Benhelima knows that Belgium well. His father, a guest worker from Morocco, would have received one of those brochures. Additional text, this time mounted on the walls, traces how Benhelima responded to questions about his parents at various points in his life, starting when he was 8. His answers start out banal — “My mother is a nurse, and my father a policeman” — and get progressively more fanciful. By 22, he’s claiming his mother spoke five languages and his father was an ambassador. But by 28, he simply says they died in a car accident. Fittingly, Benhelima devotes the first of four series shot during a nineyear period to images of immigrant children in urban environments. Most are anonymous street scenes captured with a sense of fleeting movement.

The kids’ nervous energy also comes through in straightforward portraits in which they meet the lens with shyness and apprehension. Text taken from a 1998 decree on Flemish policy toward ethno-cultural minorities says these children are considered immigrants if “at least one of their parents or grandparents was born outside Belgium” and “they are in a disadvantaged position due to their ethnic origin and their weak socioeconomic situation.” Each section — a series shot in a Brussels transit center for applicant refugees; another shot in a reception center for illegal refugees that closed in 1999 because of financial problems; and a series documenting one illegal immigrant’s desperate straits, largely selfinflicted — is accompanied by similar language. The 1998 decree’s terminology categorizes various immigrant groups’ status down to the bottom rung: people who have exhausted all legal remedies.

Benhelima’s lens reveals what recruiting brochures and government lingo omit. Armed with a documentary photographer’s uncanny ability to immerse himself in lives most of us can barely imagine, he captures his subjects’ moments of bewilderment, joy, isolation, togetherness, humiliation, dignity and pathos. That these photos of 1990s immigrants ultimately comprise a self-portrait is borne out by the fact the first and last pictures we see are a photo of the artist and a decades-old portrait of his mother, respectively. The show closes with a return to Benhelima’s autobiographical text that reveals his father’s welcome to Belgium was short-lived.

“I’m 31 now,” he wrote in 1998. “My mother died when I was 8, and my father was sent out of the country when I was 3. For the first time I’m not afraid to say: ‘My mother worked in a factory, and my father was a guest worker; it’s written on my birth certificate.’ ”